Two decades after the fall of the USSR, there is a new Eastern, Communist challenge to American world dominance. The parallels are obvious but China is not the USSR and Washington cannot revert to Cold War thinking. Proxy wars and military threats will not work with China, especially now America is no longer at the top, writes Sourbah Gupta.
Huawei and the Great Decoupling
75 years ago, a young American diplomat in Moscow by the name of George Kennan dispatched a 5,300-word telegram to his superiors in which he set out practical suggestions for future U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union. The telegram contained his deduction of the philosophical and conceptual drivers of the post-War Stalinist worldview. It instantly struck a chord in Washington as the administration grappled to come to terms with the Soviet Union’s intransigent ways in the aftermath of World War II.
The Long Telegram, as it came to be famously known, was succinct and hard-hitting. The Stalinist dictatorship, in Kennan’s view, was only the latest in a “long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who ha[d] relentlessly forced [their] country on to ever newer heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes”. With such an insecurity-ridden regime that was determined to engage in a “patient and deadly [zero sum] struggle for total destruction of a rival power” to mask its internal weaknesses, good relations were impossible. Rather, America needed to remain self-confident and true to its values, relate to Moscow without fear or favor, and offer a constructive vision of an alternative world that people would prefer to live and prosper within.
The word ‘containment’ would enter the lexicon later in Kennan’s 1947 essay, The Sources of Soviet Conduct. In it, Kennan advised his countrymen to implement a long-term policy that was designed to confront “Russian expansive tendencies … with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world”. The Kremlin was uniquely attentive, Kennan argued, to the underlying cost-benefit equation of its revolutionary adventures overseas. Boxed within its limited geographic sphere of influence, the innate deficiencies of the Soviet polity would in time weaken its own national potential and cripple the governing regime.
Is there any equivalence however between the Stalinist Soviet Union’s conduct and Socialist China’s today?
Kennan did not intend the essay to be a comprehensive statement of national strategy but it quickly became one. Its brevity, insight and rigor were irresistible and ‘containment’ effectively became the geopolitical doctrine of the Cold War age.
Against the backdrop of the meteoric geopolitical rise of China and the significant deterioration of U.S.-China ties, many commentators have tried to write the Chinese equivalent of The Long Telegram. The most notable of these attempts is a 72-page document, The Elements of the China Challenge (with a key chapter titled The Intellectual Sources of China’s Conduct), authored by the Trump administration’s State Department in November 2020.
Like Kennan, the State Department paper sets out an all-encompassing U.S. response, based on the supposed motives of the Chinese Communist Party. Like Kennan, the State Department authors reach back to China’s behavioral drivers in the pre-1911 imperial era: “The defining component of China’s conduct” derives from the Party’s “hyper-nationalist convictions” which are “not drawn from the Marxist-Leninist playbook”, the authors argue, but from traditional Chinese thought as well as its 21st century model of authoritarian governance and economic dependency-creation around the world. Kennan had ascribed Soviet conduct, too, to its despotic Tsarist inheritance, with Marxism-Leninism serving as a moral and intellectual fig leaf.
The State Department paper may make for interesting reading. Is there any equivalence however between the Stalinist Soviet Union’s conduct and Socialist China’s today? Don’t the drivers of China’s external conduct point, in fact, to a different set of outcomes? And which, in turn, should point towards a different set of ideas and strategies to cope with China?
Comparing Kennan’s Soviet Union to present-day China
In his description of the Soviet Union’s postwar outlook, Kennan wrote that Moscow believed that no permanent peaceful coexistence could be had between East and West, given the “antagonistic … encirclement” of the Soviet Union by Western capitalists. For Moscow, the way out of this encirclement was to “work toward destruction of all forms of personal independence - economic, political or moral [in amenable foreign countries, to bring them] into complete dependence” on Moscow. Stalinist Russia would command and its satellites would obey and conform.
The post-reform era Communist Party of China bears little resemblance to its Soviet predecessor. China does not export its ideology or subvert sitting governments
The post-reform era Communist Party of China bears little resemblance to its Soviet predecessor. China does not export its ideology or subvert sitting governments. Its vaunted Belt and Road Initiative is not a mammoth ‘influence operation’ intended to create strategic dependencies (although it is understandable why some in the West see it that way). Not unlike the U.S.’ own prodigious capital exports a century ago, Belt and Road is geared rather towards recycling domestic surpluses into development projects across the world on mutually advantageous terms.
There is no reason furthermore why advanced capitalist societies cannot continue to coexist with a nominally socialist state, as they have done for four decades. Indeed, Xi Jinping’s doctrinal framing of U.S.-China relations as ‘major power’ relations, not ‘great power’ relations, was deliberately intended to transcend age-old Great Power rivalry and enable peaceful coexistence. China’s success owes much to the stable and open international system, and it sees no reason to spite a world order that will continue to facilitate its growth over the next three decades. If anything, Beijing would prefer to obtain the ‘keys of the kingdom’ in the future than recreate the system anew.
Kennan ascribed the logic of the Soviet Union’s “neurotic view of world affairs” in his Long Telegram to the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” that was originally of a “peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic people”. To this was added the fear of more competent and organised Western societies with which it came into contact. Unable to withstand this contact or comparison and fearing exposure to Western value systems, the Kremlin had “learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it”.
Whether or not Kennan’s characterization is fair, Chinese authorities too have faced their own millennia-long encounter with fierce steppe tribes on their periphery. The lessons they drew were altogether different. Patient but total destruction of a fundamentally insatiable rival power was futile; it was cheaper and less destructive rather to turn their rivals’ avarice towards profit than war. The famous Chinese tribute system served as an “institutionalized protection racket” by way of “which [the] Chinese traded[d] rich silks, porcelain, jewelry and money for bad horses, at a loss” in return for peaceful relations.
[Titles, subsidies and border markets were provided as per the dictates of power politics but under the guise of a peerless emperor in exchange for secure frontiers. And it did not hurt that these titles and subsidies embellished the local authority of individual tribal chiefs and preserved the fragmented political structure on the steppe. A modern version of this playbook is already evident in the Chinese Communist Party’s economic dealings with various branches of the West.
For Kennan, from the logic of the Soviets’ “neurotic view of world affairs” and the imperative for a “patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power”, flowed the Kremlin’s need to continuously exert “fluid and constant pressure to extend [the] limits of Russian [military and] police power [at home and abroad]”. As the capitalist system fell victim to its internal contradictions (so theorized by Marx), Soviet military power would provide the “final coup de grace” to establish Moscow’s primacy under the banner of international socialism.
Granted, that the history of Chinese dynasties is littered with constant skirmishing at shifting frontiers, which continues even today in a different form in the Himalayan borderlands and the South and East China Seas. But to what extent is Kennan’s description of the Kremlin’s methods an apt representation of China’s tactics? Communist China has always been ‘Clausewitzian’ on territoriality-related considerations, treating physical pressure brought to bear, within limits, at the point of dispute as a continuation of politics and diplomacy by other means. Formal protests notes have been secondary to marking out its diplomatic position militarily on the ground. That said, this coercive but limited use of force at expedient pressure points are driven by local factors and always linked to a larger calculus of territoriality and sovereignty. Pertinently too, these episodes are not attached to an overarching or subversive ideological or strategic doctrine of conquest and domination.
Besides, in the 40 years of reform since 1980, China has not fought a single war and only one hundred-or-so lives have been lost in anger on China’s vast land and maritime frontiers, in total.
More to the point, Beijing - wizened by the ebb and flow of multiple Sinocentric orders assembled and dissipated – remains acutely aware of the limits of its power. Distant military ventures have never been, and will not be, a part of Beijing’s playbook. Besides, in the 40 years of reform since 1980, China has not fought a single war and only one hundred-or-so lives have been lost in anger on China’s vast land and maritime frontiers, in total.
Lastly, in the concluding section of the Long Telegram, Kennan argued that the risks of confronting the Soviets were manageable. The U.S.’s stake in the country was “remarkably small”. It had “no investments to guard, no actual trade to lose, virtually no citizens to protect, few cultural contacts to preserve”. From this deduction followed the necessity to proactively contain Soviet expansionism at every critical strongpoint and disallow the key global centers of industrial and military power from falling under rival control. In time, the seeds of internal decay would lead to “either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power”. 
Kennan’s observation bears little parallel today; the U.S.’s stake is China is far from small. In 2019-20, U.S. exports to China supported 1.2 million American jobs, the U.S.’ stock of foreign direct investment in China totaled $116 billion, overall annual bilateral trade in goods and services exceeded $650 billion, and U.S. investors held more than $1 trillion of Chinese equities. These stakes will almost certainly magnify as China becomes the largest economy in the world by 2030 and host the largest domestic consumption market by 2040.
More to the point, Kennan’s proposed strategy of containment was premised on the U.S. remaining the dominant global economic power and using this abundance, and leverage, to exert collective discipline among the key Western centers of industrial and military power in their dealings with Moscow. In China, by contrast, it will face a peer that is without precedent in its brief but illustrious history - one who’s economic size, and therefore the material capabilities at the government’s disposal, will vastly outstrip that of the U.S. as far as the eye can see. This will, in turn, test a core strategic proposition on which U.S. primacy has rested since its international rise as a colossus at the turn of the 20th century: that America could meet the strategic challenge of the day from a position of national strength.
Washington would be well-advised to dial down its moral stigmatization of China and its governing authorities and place more (quiet) faith in the appeal of the universal values that it espouses so lustily.
To thine own self be true …
In The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Kennan counseled that U.S.-Soviet relations was in “essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations”. America needed only to measure up to its own best traditions. It remains wise counsel even today.
There is nothing foreordained about the preeminence of a Communist Party-led China in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Upper middle-income status and the growing sophistication of a propertied middle class has not been conducive to domestic stability in authoritarian, late-developing societies in East Asia. And while it is not inevitable that the Communist Party will founder, with or without the Party, China will continue to prosper - just as post-authoritarian South Korea and Taiwan do today. Without the Party though and with a more pluralized dispensation in Beijing, the U.S and China will probably be able to craft a manageable modus vivendi on more mutually satisfactory terms.
For this to be the case however, Washington would be well-advised to dial down its moral stigmatization of China and its governing authorities and place more (quiet) faith in the appeal of the universal values that it espouses so lustily. As Kennan had observed, America must have the self-courage to cling to its own methods and conceptions of human society. These methods and conceptions, keyed no doubt to differing regional traditions and historical circumstance, resonate beyond its shores, including across the Pacific. In time, they could also furnish an immanent basis of restraint that leavens narrower tendencies of tradition, ideology and national interest and allow China and the U.S. to remold themselves as the trustees of a peaceful, prosperous and stable Asian order.